National theater festival inspires growth

Drama department competes among four-year institutions


Xavier johnson / The Advocate

RIGHT: Umi Grant (left) and Oz Herrera-Sobal (right) perform a scene from “How We Got On.” The play is nominated for presentation at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Spokane, Washington. The festival will take place Feb. 19-23.

By Michael Santone, Associate Editor

Six students and two professors from the Contra Costa College drama department converged onto the 49th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Spokane, Washington in February.

The festival assembled drama, journalism and technical theater students from community colleges and four-year universities across the country as workshops, performances, competitions and an award ceremony framed the week-long extravaganza.

“We were busy every single day, competing, attending workshops, meetings, watching plays, trying to stand the damn cold frozen temperatures,” drama department Chairperson Carlos Chavarria said. “At the end, we did not win anything, but considering the department was competing against four-year colleges and graduate schools, it was tough.”

Three students nominated for last semester’s play “How We Got On,” include Umi Grant, Oz Herrera-Sobal and Akilah Kamau.

Aside from the nominated play, five students competed in competitions ranging from acting, journalism in theater and technical theater.

First-time festival attendee Xavier Johnson, who placed fifth out of 21 writers, said it was all the knowledge he’s obtained in the journalism department that helped him excel.

“There are different ways to write about theater and when I was there I saw so much art and experienced so much art,” he said. “All the stuff I learned in here (journalism department) helped me stand out and that set me apart from other students competing.”

Johnson said he watched about seven to 10 performances throughout the duration of the festival while having to write a review before 9:30 a.m. the next morning.

“Competing felt like what it would feel like to cover a big convention like Comic Con. It was pretty tiring,” he said. “It made me think what are my strong suits as a writer and what do I need to work on.”

For the CCC drama department, this was the first time having a student compete in the journalism and technical theater aspects of the festival.

Last year the department only competed in the acting portion.

“We did really well for a community college competing against some of these schools that have more resources. I think we did a really good job,” technical theater student Cody Poehnelt said.

Poehnelt who competed in lightning design was 1 of 24 students throughout the whole festival, but unfortunately was not picked to continue to the next round.

“I think I did well, even though I — I definitely had a lot to learn for sure. Just being there I learned a lot and made a lot of connections with a lot people. Handed out my business card and all that stuff,” he said.

“I think it was more making my display look good. I didn’t have the professional photos like other people had. The look of my display wasn’t as good as some of these other peoples’ but they obviously had help. It was my first time and I think it was a good experience for me.”

Although this was only the second time the CCC drama department participated in the festival, Chavarria has been involved with KCACTF for over 15 years.

“We (CCC) have only been to the festival twice. We are very green. We are babies as a department,” he said. “Students get the opportunity to audition to four-year colleges, graduate programs, and professional theatre companies. They get to be interviewed by people from “the business” who are looking for interns and new blood to join their ranks.”

Adjunct drama professor Angelina LaBarre, who helped students prepare for their scenes and monologues, said, “I chose monologues and scenes to suit each student’s talents and skills within the tight time constraints of each round in the Irene Ryan competition. We focused on diaphragmatic breathing techniques in order to support the voice, particularly under the time constraints, and also to connect and ground the emotional arcs their characters had to take.”

LaBarre said although the drama department did not win any awards, everyone did a great job and the experiences gained at the festival is paramount.

“In addition to the competition, the students also have so many opportunities to take workshops in numerous concentrations in the theatre field from expert professionals.”

Drama major Diego Loza said the atmosphere was nothing like how he expected it to be while at the festival.

“I was already pretty nervous as it was, so having a strong positive environment really brought my nerves down a few notches,” he said. “But then my nerves went back up because my partner who was actually nominated for the competition was very sick.”

Loza competed with Kamau in the scene “5 Women Wearing The Same Dress,” by Alan Ball. “Once it was our turn and we got on the stage though it was like her sickness just got locked out of the room because she did not cough once during our scene and her energy was on fire.”

LaBarre said Chavarria and herself have moved forward with their regional festival so that the CCC drama department can become more invested in the drama community.